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A Brief Introduction to Artist Graydon Parrish

By Lee Sandstead 

Recently while on an East-coast lecture tour, I revisited one of my favorite paintings, Raphael’s Alba Madonna.  Here, Raphael did what he always did best—make things beautiful.  Looking at the contour of the Christ child’s right side, we see one of the finest figural outlines in history.  It is as if Raphael constructed this entire multi-figured painting simply to show the beauty capable of this human line. 

After the collapse of the artistic principles and techniques of the Renaissance in the early twentieth-century, artists inspired by Raphael—most notably the nineteenth-century Academics--were condemned by the Modernist art establishment and disparagingly written out of history.  Not only were hundreds of artists purposely ignored, but also 600 years of accumulated artistic knowledge was jettisoned. 

Today, even though we still live in a thoroughly Modernist world, many people are once again searching for the beauty capable of the human form and are scouring the past for artistic inspiration.  Paintings by classical masters are on their minds, and more and more living artists are scouring books and museums to recreate lost artistic knowledge. 

Maybe no other living artist has striven harder in this area than Graydon Parrish. 

Early in life Parrish realized that he wanted to be an artist, and while a senior in high school, he was one of the few students accepted to the Dallas Arts Magnet school.  Yearning to paint artworks inspired by the classical past, it was not long before Parrish was studying in the New York atelier of Michael Aviano and later the Richard Lack Atelier in Minneapolis: both considered exemplars of classical art.  Today, Parrish's work can be found in the New Britain Museum of American Art, Tyler Museum of Art, Mead Art Museum and private collections throughout the United States and Europe.

But it was never an easy road for Parrish—as it is for few artists working in classic principles of art.  “Training for representational painting, which includes both realism and classicism, was nearly nonexistent when I was an art student,” says Parrish. “There were few options so it was all the more miraculous that I found Michael Aviano, who not only trained painters but was a master of classical painting in his own right, doggedly preserving a vital tradition. "

It is not only his near-fanatic study of technique that separates him from other classical artists, but also his deep understanding of the art-historical periods in which his favorite artists such as William Bouguereau lived.  For instance, Parrish worked for many months as an art-historical researcher for the forthcoming William Bouguereau Catalog Raisonné and for years on the Jean-Léon Gérôme Catalog Raisonné.  Most recently, he worked under Art Historian Gerald Ackerman as a research assistant and editor of the recently published Charles Barque Drawing Course, a complete course dedicated to nineteenth-century Academic drawing practice written by two of the French Academy’s greatest advocates: Charles Barque and Jean-Léon Gérôme.

In each of these incredible research opportunities, Parrish not only studied the artist’s technique through their own original drawings and paintings, but also the history of their times, including: business practices, philosophies of art, criticism, biographical information, and how they were received by their contemporaries.

As Parrish notes: "Only through the most arduous study can one create art. Each picture I paint is based on thorough research in the science of light, form, and technique as well as the study of the old masters—and their history. My education, therefore, has been idiosyncratic. Unable to find complete training available to the old masters, I have orchestrated my own program of learning, combining quality academics with the guidance of present-day old masters.”

We can see Parrish’s unswerving dedication to study and mastery of technique in his latest allegorical mural entitled The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy: September 11th 2001-2006.  Commissioned for the New Britain Museum of American Art to memorialize the events surrounding 9-11, this may be the most important commission from a Classical Realist artist in recent years.  And at 8 x 18-feet, it is certainly one of Parrish’s most ambitious undertakings.  Here, according to Parrish, the painting “represents the endless cycle of human frailty; how we are blind to tragic events, no matter in what form and no matter how many have come before.” 

(While I do not agree with the painting's theme of human frailty and blindness in the face of future tragedy, I will add how glad I am that Parrish’s painting actually has an integrated theme—and just as important he can name it, which is another reason he is so different from today's artistic establishment that flouts such notions.)

One of the many fundamental values of the mural is Parrish's use of oil. Considered the Holy Grail of painting by many classical masters, most people today are completely unaware of the nature of proper oil painting.  It is a long, arduous process taking years of study and months in the studio for each large-scale painting. 

In its simplest form, a paint is the mixture of two distinct mediums--a pigment and a binder.  The pigment is anything that provides color, from finely ground rocks to flower petals. The binder is simply what holds that pigment together, and depending on what binder is used, radically different painterly effects can be achieved.  If one uses egg as the binder (tempera painting), then the painting will look opaque. If oil is used, then the painting will look luxurious.

The process of oil painting in the manner of Parrish and the old masters is broadly known as 'glazing' to art historians.  It is the technique that Leonardo fought most of his life to master--and it is the medium that Raphael did master, especially in La Donna Velata

A 'glaze' is “a thin film of transparent color laid over a dried underpainting." Basically, light penetrates through the layers of paint using oil as the conduit until hitting the ground layer.  At which time, the light reflects back through the painting.  Some artworks, such as those of Titian, might have 60 to 70 layers of paint in certain areas.

The benefit of thinly-painted oil layers is the unrivaled sensuality and vivacity brought to the artwork.  Cheeks flush with life, veins pulse under the skin and eyes beam with radiance. 

One of the finest glaze oil-painters in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the American Rembrandt Peale.  Compare his oil portrait on the left with that of Ghirlandaio's Renaissance portrait painted using egg whites as the binder on the right.  Peale's has an incredible vivacity that Ghirlandaio's lacks.

Looking at the two above details from Parrish's mural, we see all the gorgeous fluctuations of tonal colors in the different regions of the human figure.  Ankles, heels, wrists, knees--all have a definite, sensual reality to them because of Parrish's oil techniques.

Painting in layers is one of the most important techniques in oil painting—and Parrish has worked for years recreating the classical techniques and perfecting his own.  Add his attention to light, color, composition, line, perspective, draftsmanship, ambition, ambitious ideas--and imagination--and we have an extremely promising painter who has already produced some of the best classical artworks of today.  A painter who brings us gorgeousness in figural line, grace in pose, vitality in skin and sensuality in oil.

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(c) Lee Sandstead 2006

































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